[The following was originally the prologue of my forthcoming novel WYATT IN WICHITA. I decided to cut it as leaning too far into fiction--I was trying to write a novel about the young Wyatt Earp with a reasonable amount of historical basis--and it's also a little too pulp-western in tone. Still, I like this vignette, and feel it's a pretty good short story in itself, so here it is, in its only publication]
U.S. Marshal Lars Van Galen knew he was dying as soon as he tried to sit up: his heart skipped a beat, and the dusty interior of the ghost-town shack seemed to recede into a shadowy distance. The coldness spreading in his hands and feet told him that the bullet-holes in his side and thigh had poured out an ounce too much blood. That’s what it came down to, an ounce difference, more or less, the docs said. The belt he’d tied around his thigh and the old gingham curtain he’d tried to plug his side with hadn’t availed of much. Strange, too, how cold it felt to him, in here—he knew it was the afternoon of a hot and humid day in the Kansas summer. He tried to get to his feet, but slumped back, shaking. Couldn’t even stand…
A hard place to die—in a town already dead itself. It had been a cattle trading terminus, once; then the railroad had chosen to go to Ellsworth and Wichita, taking the cattle trade with it, and all the water had dried up. Now it was abandoned, occupied only by crows, two murderous thieves and a dying lawman.
Hold on, you old fool, until the job’s done, he told himself, bracing his back against the wall. Those two hard-cases would come to him, momentarily. He might do for the sons of bitches yet.
If he could just finish the job–that much he could leave behind. He had no kin, his wife and son both having died on him. He had no money to leave anyone at all. His will left his saddle, his guns and his broken gold watch to Miss Jandia Coleman, a fancy girl at Windaman’s Fine Wines and Spirits, otherwise known as the only surviving saloon in Plain’s Edge. Jandia was the closest he had to a friend, any more, the others having died or moved on. Maybe she could sell his guns and the saddle for seventy dollars or thereabouts. She’d likely use the money for the laudanum she was becoming too fond of.
Apart from that, all he could leave behind was one more finished job—and the prairie of 1873 just a mite safer.
He tightened his hold on the blue-steel Army revolver till his knuckles went white. He had to get a good grip on it, if he hoped to use it, but he felt like he was wearing thick woolen gloves—and they were getting thicker. Still, he hoped to kill at least Angus O’Reilly, before O’Reilly and Tolliver finished their own job. Right now, their job, as they saw it, was to kill a U.S. Marshal.
Stupid to have gone after them himself. They had crossed territorial lines, after their crime, making them federal fugitives, but he could have sent word for the County Sheriff…Only, the Sheriff probably would have made excuses and not gone.
He strained to see his pistol clearly–he had lost the ability to see sharp up close when he’d past fifty-three years, and his present weakness made things even blurrier. He held the gun out at arm’s length, propped on a knee, and peered at it, fumbling with the loading gate. He got it open, spun the cylinder. Three rounds remained unfired in their chambers. That was the end of his ammunition…It might be enough, if he could point the gun straight.
But oh Lord, the weariness; that feeling in his middle parts, like someone clamping him hard with a blacksmith’s gripper; the cold burning in his leg. Maybe just lay back and go to sleep. Why die painful?
Come on, you son of a buck, rear up one last time and be of some goddamned use.
He closed the loading gate, turned the cylinder to put the first round in place. Working hard at it, he thumbed back the hammer spur, cocking the gun. Funny how something that had come effortlessly for so long, as natural as breathing, had gotten to be as hard as lifting a buckboard’s axle. But breathing itself was hard to do now…
The pain was almost gone, lost in a fog. He knew that wasn’t good. Pain meant you were alive…
He cocked his knee too, propped the gun butt on his kneecap—and just then the door opened and a man came in. Van Galen squeezed the trigger…
Nothing happened. The fall he’d taken in the dirt outside had jammed the firing mechanism; it would cock but the hammer wouldn’t fall. He sighed, and waited for the tall, thin silhouette in front of him to blow him to kingdom come.
Funny how you never thought about those words, though you used them a thousands times. “Kingdom Come.”
He was about to find out if there was a kingdom to come…
“If you’ll point that gun somewheres else,” said the figure in the doorway, “I’ll see if I can help you, Marshal.” Not Tolliver or O’Reilly, by the voice.
“Who…would you be?”
“I was riding by,” said the young man. He was still blurry to Van Galen, but his voice and his gait, coming closer, all said he was young. “I heard the shots. I rode up, and I saw a couple of fellows moving around back of this shack—maybe fifty feet back, by that old smoke house. Looked like they were concerned to get the drop on you. Coming real careful.” The stranger went down on one knee, lifted the Marshal’s shirt out of the way, and the improvised bandage. Shook his head. “Don’t look good.”
“It…it ain’t good boy. This here wreck of a shack is the last room I’ll see…If you’ll take my effects…to Plain’s Edge…Undertaker has my will there…My name’s…” He had to pause, try to get some spit in his mouth; it was most too leathery to talk with.
“Yes sir. I know you—you’re Marshal Van Galen. I saw you over to Ellsworth, more than once, when I was bringing in buffalo skins.”
“Listen boy–you shouldn’t be…” Van Galen had to swallow hard to finish the sentence. “…shouldn’t have your back to the door. They’ll kill you, them two, just…just in case, like.”
The young man nodded, half turning to face the door.
“Maybe I can get you some water, a smoke, anyways.”
“No, boy—oh there’s nothin’ I’d like more. But…no time.”
The young man shifted, hunkering back to think. He had sandy hair, a lean face, a pale mustache that was still more vanity than mustache, a sharply defined nose and jaw; grave gray-blue eyes. Sandy blond hair.
Not so different from what his own son would’ve looked like, as a young man, Van Galen thought, with a pang that hurt more than his wounds.
The slim stranger lifted his head, listening; Van Galen had seen a wolf do it that way, once. The young man’s eyes flicked to the walls, moving to follow a sound the Marshal couldn’t hear. His hearing was faded with age—and with dying.
“They’re coming,” the young man said. Van Galen thought that was what he said, anyway, judging by the movement of his lips. He’d spoken so softly it was barely audible.
The young man drew his own side-arm, a cap-and-ball pistol from the Civil War—probably a gift from an older relative. Van Galen saw the young man swallow, and there was just a little tremble in his gun hand. The boy was scared. Natural enough, but it wouldn’t help him.
“No use,” Van Galen rasped. He worked up some wetness in his mouth and went on, “No use asking them boys for quarter, they don’t give none. You give me your gun, I…” But he knew that was a mistake. “No. I’d miss. I’m too weak to squeeze a trigger. You got to do it…”
“Me?” The young man licked his lips. Slowly, so as not to make much noise, he stood, the gun dangling at his side. “I was a constable—over in Missouri–but I never had to shoot on the job. Never did much but wrestle down drunks and runaway pigs. Wounded a drunk brakeman one time in a fight in a…well, a bar… but I wasn’t trying to kill him. “That…” He shook his head.
Van Galen gathered what little strength he had. He had nothing left to leave the world—except advice. “You got to do it, if you want to live. Got to. Now, what you do is, when it’s time to shoot–don’t hurry. They’re going to be in a hurry. That’s bad for the aim. And they’re drunk—they always got a bottle with ‘em. That’ll maybe give you an edge. You take enough time to aim, and say to yourself it’s up to the Lord if you live. Got to accept you might not live—or you’ll be afeerd, and that, it’ll kill you right there.”
The young man nodded, his head cocked. There was a vibration in the floor—the gunmen had come around to the front of the shack. One of them had set his foot, probably, on the step.
“And boy…” Van Galen continued. “Boy, you…stretch out your arm, point your gun like pointing your finger. Squeeze the trigger. And…Turn sideways so you’ll make less a target…And if you…” He never got to say the rest.
The young man had heard him, and turned sideways, pointing the gun at the door—just as it burst inward, and O’Reilly, big and red-faced, teeth bared, hair all bloused out like a desert plant, came lurching in; behind him was the slick-haired, fox-faced Tolliver, the gambler. Both of them wanted for murdering a jeweler up in St. Louis; both with their pistols in hand. They stopped, startled by the boy—
“Who the hell!”
“Just kill him, you knothead!” Tolliver shouted, cocking his gun
But all this time the young man was taking aim, his gun-hand shaking a little but pointed straight enough. He fired, and the old revolver bucked back in his slender hand, recoiling so it pointed nearly at the ceiling; but he instantly lowered it back level to fire again as O’Reilly staggered back, his Dragoon firing wildly. A window shattered above Van Galen, and he felt bits of glass raining down on his bare head. Already the shack was filled with gun smoke; an instant, acrid blue fog.
Tolliver snarled and shoved O’Reilly aside, bringing his gun to bear but the young constable was firing, and firing again, and twice more, seeming to find a sort of calm inner rhythm, and Tolliver went spinning back to fall across O’Reilly, who was staring in amazement, mouth quivering, eyes glazing.
Tolliver’s gun rose up from the floor like a rattlesnake—wavering there—and the young man stepped to one side, and fired twice more. He took a step closer to the outlaws, the gun smoke billowing around him with his movement, and pulled the trigger again, but this time there was only a click. He had discharged every bullet.
The young man stared at the dead men for a long moment…and then took a deep breath. Coughing from the powder smoke, he returned to hunker, again, by Van Galen’s side.
I believe they are done for,” the young man said.
How very thick the gun smoke was, in the room, Van Galen thought. So thick and black, like soot from a locomotive. But maybe that wasn’t gun smoke. Maybe that was the final darkness coming. Peaceful and cool.
“Boy,” Van Galen heard himself say, his own voice echoing in his head. “Listen…some…last advice…don’t tell folks you done this. Nor say I done it—wouldn’t want you to lie. But see, boy…you don’t want to be known…as a gunman. Ain’t wise. Best they think…you’ve no wish to use a gun…Other…otherwise…”
“Why, I think I’d do it that way, anyhow,” said the young man. “Having no wish to use a gun, I mean, unless I must.” His voice sounded so far away now. “But I’ll take your advice—you sure know the job. I’d not have come out of here alive had I not heeded you, sir.”
“You done fine. You, so like…my Lou, he’d a-been…oh, I’m failing. Tell me this, boy…what’s your name? I would know it before I go…”
“Why sir, my name’s…”
But the darkness drew its own shroud over the Marshal, then. He did not hear the young man name himself.